DARK STAR ORCHESTRA: LIVE AT THE FILLMORE (ARSEAEM '05)

If you are a regular JamBase reader, you likely hold the Grateful Dead in high regard. You're probably aware that they are arguably the most popular live musical performance act in human history and that they garnered devotion that far surpassed the typical connection between musician and fan. It seems inevitable that the forefathers of jam music will continue to influence music performance for decades to come.

Dark Star Orchestra's performances, therefore, can be considered the most inspired musical dedication ever. They redefine what a cover band can do. In their hands, the Dead's legacy of mystique and song repertoire are handled with care and sincere reverence. For those uninitiated, DSO's emulation of musical performance is uncanny. Their utmost attention is given to recreating the setting of a particular tour - the instruments used, playing style, vocal mannerisms, and even the Dead's humble stage persona.

Live at the Fillmore was recorded on May 8th, 2004 at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium. The concert recreated the Dead's May 5th, 1977 show from the Veteran's Memorial Coliseum in New Haven, Connecticut. I happen to be partial to this tour. It's not quite the tour de force of their 1973 performances, but the late 70's shows seemed to showcase a fully matured chemistry and generally solid setlists. This is all to say that DSO picked a fine episode to archive on this, their first DVD.

The videography is highly competent, finding player performances at appropriate musical moments. The vocals are shot close enough to see Rob Eaton's channeling of Bob Weir's delivery. But it’s the audio that makes this DVD shine. The 5.1 channel digital recording on my home theater system blew me away. Mind you, I'm used to listening to the multi-generational tape recordings of Dead shows that I've accumulated over the years, so to hear the clarity of a three-dimensional matrix recording of this concert is a treat. For grins, I visited a Dead fan site that happens to host streams of the entire May 1977 run. As magic as the Dead sounded in their May 5th show, this disc's performance and production is in another league. And frankly, that's the main reason I dig DSO shows. They often play with a technical virtuosity that rivals the actual show they are covering. And the more advanced sound systems of today just might make the experience even more rewarding audio-wise than the original instance.

The first set closes with a “Lazy Lighting > Fennario > Music Never Stopped” sequence while the second set ends with a “St. Stephen > Sugar Mag.” These set climaxes are rock solid. John Kadlecik ably plays Garcia's leads and delivers a dead-on Garcia vocal treatment on songs like “Deal” and “Bertha.”

I was initially skeptical about watching DSO on DVD as opposed to seeing them live, but the musicianship and recording quality quickly won me over. One other notable detail about this event was the guest appearance of Donna Godchaux who reprised her role on several songs. As another bonus, the DVD is packaged with a CD of the show which lets you take the music with you. It's not the 5.1 channel version, but it’s as clean a soundboard recording as you'll find.

Back in the day, I remember t-shirts sporting a play on the old Memorex tagline, "Is it live, or is it Dead?" DSO reminds us that live Dead was something special. Their performances and recordings act to carry that torch for a new generation. It's a noble quest, and when you experience the magic again, or for the first time, you can't help but smile, smile, smile.

Haig Assadourian
JamBase | Colorado
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[Published on: 7/30/05]

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